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Spell’s Al Lester: “Magic always comes at a cost. Pacts get sealed with blood, and souls get sold to obtain desires”

Interview with Cam Mesmer & Al Lester from Spell
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 17 November 2022, 10:55 PM

To strive for something, and make an effort, there is always a price to be paid, whether it is time or simply doing other things that do not concern the deed done. Is there a right or wrong here, there is none actually, it is simply how it feels. The Canadian duo of Heavy Metal and Hard Rock, Spell, following the success of their previous album, deliver a shout out to the early 80s with “Tragic Magic”. Steinmetal had a chance to have a talk with Cam Mesmer and Al Lester about the new album, the general feel of the record and more.  

Hello dear gents, it is an immense pleasure of mine to have you for this talk with Metal Temple online Magazine, how are you two doing guys?

Al: Hey Lior, thanks for the interview!

Cam: Great to meet ya!

Listening to your Spell venture, I was thinking to myself, actually kicking more likely, of why haven’t I heard of you earlier on. What can I say, one of these cases. Anyways, the new offering you brought in felt to me like a dream, a twisted kind. Let’s trip a little back pleasure before we go further into the new number. Can you summarize the last couple of years with everything that happened? How did it influence you?

Al: The last few years have been hard on a lot of people, and definitely a bit like a twisted dream for most of us I’m sure. So I guess it’s no wonder the album feels that way too! We were working on the album for the first two years of the pandemic basically, so we kept ourselves pretty busy with that, and with other musical projects, and our regular jobs and lives.

It amazed me that after the success of your previous album, “Opulent Decay”, your guitarist, and keyboard player, Graham McVie, left the band. It always struck me as an oddity of why the hell to leave when a record that you participated in kicked ass. What happened over there with Mr. McVie? Was it one of those musical differences or simply life struck hard?

Al: Graham played with us in this lineup for over a decade, so it was definitely a big change for the band. There’s not too much to say about it really other than we didn’t all have the same vision or goals for Spell so it was better to continue on separately. We wish him all the best.

Cam: Yeah, he wasn’t interested in playing the kind of music we wanted to do any longer and it had been getting really difficult to get him to learn the songs in time for recording our previous album (Opulent Decay), so before we started working on Tragic Magic we told him we were going to continue on as a two piece.

Over to the present we go, recently, you released your new album, once again with Bad Omen Records, “Tragic Magic”. Frankly, you had me baffled a bit with this title, in a good way of course, as it is rather interesting. What is so tragic about the magic you are referring to, things that we can’t control?

Al: I guess to put it simply -  Magic always comes at a cost. Pacts get sealed with blood, and souls get sold to obtain desires. As with any artistic endeavor, you put all your time, effort and resources into your creation, chasing little glimpses of something that seems magical to you. Giving yourself over to your passion against your better senses and paying the price.

Cam: A lot of the songs are about this theme in one way or another. Cruel Optimism is a particularly obvious example: it’s about how we’ve been bull-headedly pursuing this dream of being in a heavy metal band for so long now, endlessly optimistic about where it will might take us — but now, suddenly, I realize that the better part of my youth is behind me, and I’ve given up on so many other opportunities in favour of heavy metal. A lot of my peers have families, homes, good jobs… it’s mostly too late for me to pursue those things now. So, in retrospect, my mindless optimism seems to have been pretty cruel.

You talk about the album’s themes, which from my end, appear quite varied in their significance and resolution. There is a mention of the personal experiences, and that intrigued my interest even further. Can you elaborate on that please? What kind of experiences are you talking about? Were there yours personally or merely collected cases of others?

Al: There are songs about the loss of a family member and loss of intergenerational knowledge, about Alzheimer’s disease and the terrifying effects it has, about the powerful nature of dreams and about our own limitations regarding what we are able to perceive and understand of the universe we live in. Some of the songs concern mortality and our connection to the deceased and those who came before us. The lyrics are all based on our thoughts and experiences, we are never really telling someone else’s story or telling a fictional story, as we really only want to write about topics we truly feel some deeper connection or urgency about.

Cam: I like to write about the most challenging experiences that I have, in the hopes that someone else might be able to identify with what I’m feeling and get some kind of catharsis from it. It’s so easy to feel isolated when you’re going through something difficult. We all struggle, so I think we’ve got to do what we can to support each other, even if it’s just hearing a lyric and recognizing that you’re not alone. I don’t much go for fantasy or escapist lyrics — all my favourite bands write about the real stuff that they’re going through. Priest, Sabbath, Purple, Accept, also Cauldron and quite recently, I respect Sonja for that reason!

We mentioned that earlier, the pandemic, now, there were experiences of a lot of people over that course in humanity’s life’s span, which hasn’t been part of our daily lives for ages. How does “Tragic Magic” come into light in regards to these last two plus years? Is there a connection that you can identify?

Al: Well the pandemic experience has certainly made it clear that everything in the world can change at the drop of a hat. So whatever that dream you are putting off might be- do it now and don’t wait.

Cam: The songwriting on this album is much more direct and to the point. The last few years have made us realize that we have no time to waste. Nobody does, and nobody wants to hear any self-indulgent noodling around. Get to the point. Say your peace and move on. That’s what we tried to do with this record.

With “Tragic Magic” having a relation with the end of life, there is also a sense of fear, at least from what I could gather, of the unknown, the one that we can’t control. When it comes to you personally, do you fear the unknown, or what could happen to you further on, even tomorrow?

Al: I think everyone has some sense of fear and awe of the unknown, that’s just human nature and what makes life exciting. I work in a mortuary setting so every day all day I am confronted with “what could happen to me” (if I were to be fatally ill or injured). I think I have a healthy respect (and deep obsession) for the unknown, and an ample awareness of and adequate attention to mortality. Stay safe and take care of each other folks, it’s easy to die!

Cam: I seem to have this anxious obsession with recording and releasing my music as fast as I can, because who knows what could happen tomorrow? So many things have to go right for a band to be able to make a record — everyone has to be healthy, all the equipment has to work, supply chains have to be in order, the label has to be up and running, etc, etc. It’s incredible to have that much luck all at the same time! Any chance you get to release some music is a great gift, so don’t hesitate!

The album’s artwork actually speaks quite fluently about the things that are hard for us to control, even out of our control. I guess that, without knowing, Wladyslaw Podkowiński hit the spot. What is your take on that? How do you find this painting?

Cam: Yes, when I first saw the painting I was blown away. It so perfectly captures the themes of the album! We discovered this painting while looking through endless piles of art books in the basement of a secondhand bookstore in town. Usually the basement is off limits to customers, but I’ve gotten to know the proprietor a bit because I worked in another used bookstore for years, so sometimes he lets me down there to root around. It’s huge — tens of thousands of books, maybe more, all without any organizational system. So, whenever I happen upon exactly what I need down there, it does feel like a bit of magic. It’s dark, too, so we were squinting away down there, looking for weird obscure art books, and suddenly this painting came up. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I immediately knew it would be the cover. When I read the story behind the work, I was even more convinced: this was the painter’s masterwork. He worked on it for years, but the critics hated it from the first showing! In anguish, the artist slashed the painting and took his own life. Luckily, the painting was later repaired. If that’s not “tragic magic,” I don’t know what is.

The first term that caught my brain when I first started listening to “Tragic Magic” is exploration, as if it was never enough for you, you journeyed onwards, looking for additional ways and directions to become unique. “Tragic Magic” is proof that a lot of things happened in the early 80s, nonetheless, you added extra layers to develop a wonderful fusion that is crossing genres. What is your opinion about that notion?

Al: I agree that a lot of great things happened in the early 80s, some of the most influential music for us is from that era. That being said, we are never really deliberately trying to emulate a specific era or create a fusion of genres. We are just playing heavy rock music that we want to hear and trying to make it enjoyable and exciting as well as thought provoking. I find that people seem to read a lot into things like using synths, playing some odd time signatures, having some softer or more subdued songs, playing 16th note grooves, having a big bass sound etc. All the classic heavy metal bands basically all did all of those things and it didn’t make them fusion, prog, shoegaze, gothrock, etc. To us it’s just a normal approach to heavy metal and hard rock.

Cam: Yeah, it’s kind of funny. We’re mostly just trying to make ‘normal’ heavy metal music, as that sounds to our ears – yet when people hear our songs, everyone’s like ‘Prog! Fusion! Originality!’ which is fine with us of course, but it kind of makes me laugh. I don’t think our music is really all that original at all. I steal my ideas from classic bands just like everyone else! I think that the genre ‘heavy metal’ has gotten so narrow nowadays that people seem to think that if you’re not playing guitar harmonies on a 5150 at tempo 200 with double kicks and falsetto screamed lyrics about conan the barbarian, then it’s not ‘heavy metal’ — look at the classic bands, almost none of them did that. It’s like a weird false imagining of history. I think our music and sound is actually pretty standard, but heavy metal has gotten so narrow and exclusionary recently that most of the classic genre-defining bands wouldn’t even be considered ‘heavy metal’ if they were to come out today!

It seems to me that the songwriting sessions of the record were those that garnered a lot of interest, because of that exploration that I talked about. Other than Blue Oyster Cult that I caught to be one of the prime influences, what other bands, and genres, crossed your paths while the record was in the works?

Al: I think rather than exploring on this album we were trying to distill our sound into a more direct, more succinct and effective version of itself. We do love B.O.C., and lately I have been really into the Club Ninja album. We always love streamlined action-ready heavy metal like Accept and Michael Schenker Group. Stuff that is rough and tough but still moves and grooves. We also love big atmospheres like you might find in The Damned ‘Phantasmagoria’, Candlemass, King Diamond, or Bathory ‘Twilight of the Gods’. We both listen to lots of different music across many genres.

Cam: Yeah, I don’t think there was any point in history where musicians were exclusively listening to one genre of music. We love tons of stuff and believe in taking inspiration from all kinds of genres and bringing in the elements that are going to work within a heavy metal context. Back in the day, you would have had all the biggest bands recording at the same studios, sharing equipment and producers, so I think there was a lot more mixing and blending. Nowadays it seems more like ‘metal bands go to metal studios, punk bands go to punk studios’ etc. We don’t really believe in that.

As for the songwriting process itself, working now as a duo, how did it work out for you? What can you say that you changed in the manner of writing songs, maybe a twist in your approach in regards to the structure of the tunes and sorts?

Cam: It seems pretty similar to me — it’s always been me & Al working on the songs. Most of the time, I’ll have an idea or two while I’m playing guitar at home, and then I’ll bring ‘em down to the jamspace to workshop with Al. Sometimes he’ll have an idea that fits with it, and he’ll jump on the guitar while I take over the drums for a minute to hammer it out. Then eventually we’ll work out all the little transitions and get the bass & drum groove locked, and then cut a demo. The only real difference this time was that we were a lot more discerning about editing ourselves, cutting out anything extra that wasn’t fundamental to the structural integrity of the song. I don’t want to waste people’s time with second rate riffs. It wasn’t easy, but I’m quite proud of how we distilled these songs to their most basic elements. Writing a three minute song is WAY more difficult than writing a five minute song, that’s for sure!

Since there were keyboards involved on the record, who took care of that role with your ex-member not being around? I can assume that keyboards were still a needed commodity for you guys also on this record right?

Cam: Yeah, we like that sound and feel it adds a lot. On the past albums, Graham and I shared keyboard duties in the studio. This time, I worked on keyboards with our pal Gabriel, who also plays in the local goth/new wave band “Girlfriends & Boyfriends.” He has a great little studio with a ton of huge synths, so it was really fun to workshop stuff and play with incredible sounds. Gabriel will be playing live synth and guitar with us too, as well as our other dear friend Jeff from the band Gatekeeper! This new line up is really exciting because we finally have four members and at last we can play all the harmonies and synth lines the way they were intended to be.

Along with the keyboards, one of the chief elements of the music is the electrifying atmosphere, you were able to create a wonderful scenery for every track, a kind of atmosphere that would send out the listener wandering in the fields, or streets. How do you find the atmospheric nature of “Tragic Magic”?

Cam: Thanks! We spend a lot of time working on the tone for each song. It’s so many hours of labour that I occasionally feel like it’s wasted effort that nobody notices, so thank you for picking up on it! I always find it a little bit of a missed opportunity when a band just records their whole album with the same guitar sound. Like, every song is different! Find something that works for that song! We used about 7 different amps, 10 different guitars, and probably 20 guitar pedals to make Tragic Magic. All of our guitar effects are recorded live, not added after digitally. We just wanted to capture the vibe of each song as we were making it.

I believe that the album’s top notch, and should hit the charts, is the smoothie “Watcher Of The Seas”, a culmination of what you two gents can do with your talents. This song became very dear to me, reminding me points of my youth, where my Metal listening also crossed paths with early 80s Pop. What can you tell about this track? Would you say that it shares an impact on the record?

Cam: Sure, thank you! We’re very proud of this song — I especially love Al’s solos at the end! The song is about a real experience I had while hiking in a remote place on Vancouver Island, minus the last line, which is metaphorical. Overall, it’s about the connection I have to the land on which I live. It’s a bit of a nostalgic tune, I guess, so I can see the connection to your youth. The 80’s pop thing also makes sense because I think the final result gives off a bit of an ‘Alan Parsons Project’ vibe.

Haunting with an atmospheric main riff, and a hooking chorus, there is the second in command, “Ultraviolet”. Psychedelia comes in strong with this song, also portraying great rhythm section work that ensured tightness. What do you make of this song?

Cam: This song is very literally about the hidden powers that affect us, that we cannot understand or control. I took the metaphor of ultraviolet light, which is invisible to our eyes, but allows us to live by providing energy and nutrition to the earth, and also kills us by burning our eyes and skin, giving us cancer and decay. In this song, I wonder what other powers might be out there, taking their influence on us, that we cannot feel or see due to the limitations of our physical bodies.

Now, with you two being with a guitarist, as an official member of the band, are you still a live band? Do you intend to support your record any time soon?

Cam: Yep — as said above, we’re really excited to be playing with Jeff and Gabriel now, and our live show will be far better than it’s ever been before! We’re booked at some festivals, on both sides of the Atlantic! I’m not allowed to announce most of ‘em yet, but keep your eyes peeled!

Dear gents, it was good to have you for this chat, and great to know the band and its exploits. I really hope that the next record will be arriving sooner than I think. I bid you thanks. Cheers

Thanks a lot, pleasure chatting with you! We’re already hard at work on the next album, so just wait!!


 



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